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Share public data with the public

A health worker takes a swab from a woman for a COVID-19 rapid antigen test at a testing centre in Karol Bagh in New Delhi on June 22, 2020.

A health worker takes a swab from a woman for a COVID-19 rapid antigen test at a testing centre in Karol Bagh in New Delhi on June 22, 2020.   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Lack of reliable data in the public domain has hampered the search for policy alternatives in India

The unsatisfactory state of India’s data collection and processing system is among the many systemic deficiencies exposed by the pandemic. It was highlighted by the recent upward revisions to the COVID-19 death toll in some States. Apart from this implicit acknowledgement of the discrepancies in the data-handling process, there are also allegations of under-reporting COVID-19 cases. In general, on every issue encountered during the last three months, from the migrants’s travails to the inadequate fiscal package, lack of reliable data in the public domain has hampered the search for policy alternatives.

Also read: How do States fare on reporting COVID-19 data?

 

From 2006 onwards, several open-source software enthusiasts and civil society activists came together in the U.S. and U.K. with a demand to unlock the data gathered by governments for unfettered access and reuse by citizens. After all, the data collected at public expense must belong to the people. This principle is the basis for the Open Data Charter adopted by 22 countries since 2015. It calls upon governments to disseminate public data in open digital formats. In return, the Charter argues, governments can expect “innovative, evidence-based policy solutions”.

Making data accessible

In India, a step towards making non-sensitive government data accessible online was taken in 2012 with the adoption of the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP). However, the implementation has lagged far behind its stated objectives. The main thrust of the policy is to “promote data sharing and enable access to Government of India owned data for national planning, development and awareness”. The implementation guidelines for NDSAP include lofty ideals such as “openness, flexibility, transparency, quality” of data, and aim to facilitate “access to Government of India shareable data in machine-readable form”. The guidelines prescribe open digital formats suitable for analysis and dissemination. Opaque formats such as the portable document format and the image format are discouraged. As part of the Open Government Data (OGD) initiative, data.gov.in, was launched in 2012.

In the current climate, the OGD initiative could potentially have made a substantial difference to India’s COVID-19 response. Had the district-wise, demographic-wise case statistics and anonymous contact traces been released in the public domain, reliable model forecasts of disease spread and targeted regional lockdown protocols could have been generated. Model forecasts have limitations, but models without inputs from empirical data are even more unreliable. Principles of OGD notwithstanding, sufficiently granular infection data are not available. Ironically, violating the data format guidelines, OGD portal provides COVID-19 data only as a graphic image unsuitable for any analysis. The other official data sources (the Indian Council of Medical Research and mygov.in) fare no better. They too do not publish district-wise statistics, and the available data are not in usable formats. Such half-hearted attempts throttle any possibility of data-driven research, innovation and useful outcomes.

In contrast, the data portals of Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. present district-wise COVID-19 cases data, and also the emergent effects on mental health, jobs and education. According to the latest report of the Open Data Barometer, an independent group measuring the impact of open data, these nations lead the pack while India is a contender to reach the top bracket and not a laggard. The government must provide the impetus and incentive to exploit this voluminous data by invigorating the dated national data portal.

Creating social impact

Every department must be mandated to share substantive data respecting privacy concerns. Much of the Census and socio-economic data, publicly funded research data, and scientific data are either not open or rotting in unusable formats. The government should look within for examples of creative outcomes of opening up the database. Start-ups have built novel applications using Indian Railways data to provide ticket confirmation prediction and real-time train status. Sharing public data is a way to create beneficial social impact.

M. S. Santhanam is a physicist and a professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune

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Printable version | Jul 6, 2020 8:24:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/share-public-data-with-the-public/article31947468.ece

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